I have always considered Mao Zedong’s statement, “To be attacked by the enemy is not a bad thing but a good thing,” to be among his most valuable. Not only did it alter my conception of struggle, but it encapsulated perhaps more succinctly than any other of his sayings, the dialectical character of his thinking and strategy. It was this quality that allowed Mao to exploit the contradictions among the enemy, to “overcome all difficulties,” and to repeatedly turn defeat into victory. But it was not the losses and suffering from such attacks that Mao was referring to: he was always determined to turn the “bitter sacrifice” required by revolution into “bold resolve.”1 The reason that to be attacked was a “good” and not a “bad” thing, was that it meant that the revolutionary forces were hurting the enemy, were a challenge to their control, were successfully carrying out the struggle. Otherwise, why would those opposed to the revolution even bother to attack? The less restraint such enemies showed, the more they revealed their own weaknesses and were blinded to reality. “It is still better if the enemy attacks us wildly and paints us as utterly black and without a single virtue; it demonstrates that we have not only drawn a clear line of demarcation between the enemy and ourselves but achieved a great deal in our work.”2 The more strongly the revolutionaries were attacked, therefore, the higher the measure of success they must be having. Moreover, a blind thrashing out by those opposing the revolution, guided only by hatred, would cause them to make serious errors and discredit them in the eyes of the people.
The recent publication of Mao: The Unknown Story, by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, is an unrelenting and painful attack, not only on his leadership as an individual, but on the entire history of the revolution that he led, and on the ongoing struggle for socialism not just in China, but globally. This aspect of the book was evident from early reviews already published before its U.S. release. As the reviewers made clear, the authors set out, in great detail, not only to demolish Mao as both a leader and a person, but to deny the very nature of the Chinese revolutionary socialist past, down to the smallest factual matters. They portray the principal leader of both China’s national liberation struggle and its revolution for socialism as a coward, scornful of the peasants, who enjoyed the deaths the revolution brought, ruled only through fear and manipulation, and was personally dissolute. Many mainstream reviewers, and at least some “new China hands,” have seized upon the book even more enthusiastically than they did the supposed exposé, The Private Life of Chairman Mao by “Mao’s Doctor,” Li Zhisui. The breathless eagerness of the reception accorded the new work extends to the BBC, which gave Mao: The Unknown Story, though it claims to be a book of well researched nonfiction, a “dramatic” reading in a voice dripping with cynicism and irony.
Many of the written reviews have a similar quality of unquestioning endorsement. In what one of the reviewers calls “a work of unanswerable authority… Mao is comprehensively discredited from beginning to end in small ways and large; a murderer, a torturer, an untalented orator, a lecher, a destroyer of culture, an opium profiteer, a liar.”3 Claiming that he was responsible for 70 million deaths — an assertion vastly out of proportion with even the highest and hotly disputed claims put forth by some others — “Chang says of Mao, ‘He was as evil as Hitler or Stalin, and did as much damage to mankind as they did.’”4 But even this is not enough for some reviewers. Comparing him to the former Soviet leader, Simon Sebag Montefiore declares, “Mao is the greatest monster of them all — the Red Emperor of China.”5 Philip Hensher joins this chorus of initial and enthusiastic reviewers, using similar language to denounce the “whole monstrous saga.” The first reviews in the United States parrot this language, with “China’s Monster, Second to None,” the title of the review in the New York Times by Michiko Kakutani, who notes that the book makes “an impassioned case for Mao as the most monstrous tyrant of all times” (10/21/05). The same words were echoed two days later — the lack of any originality in their language is itself telling — in the Times Book Review by Nicholas D. Kristof, who despite expressing doubts about its scholarship, sourcing and accuracy, and “reservations about the book’s judgments” (asserting that “Mao, however monstrous, also brought useful changes to China”), nevertheless declares it to be a “magnificent biography” and a “magisterial” work.6
Hatred of Mao simply reeks from the pages of most of these reviews, and they serve, intentionally or otherwise, to intimidate any who might take a positive, or even just a less totally negative view than do Chang and Halliday, of the life and accomplishments of the leader of the Chinese socialist revolution. It is therefore important to address the climate out of which both Mao: The Unknown Story and those who have so eagerly embraced it come and to which they in turn contribute. Clearly, this work fits perfectly into the pattern that Mao himself already anticipated in his essay, “To Be Attacked by the Enemy…,” as it “attacks us wildly and paints us as utterly black and without a single virtue.” It is this entirely one-sided approach that the majority of reviewers have eagerly embraced and unquestioningly adopted as their own, blinding them to any more balanced analysis of his role.
Like many others, I responded with anger and dismay at the issuing of this “poison weed,” as Professor Mobo Gao of the University of Tasmania in Australia has termed Mao: The Unknown Story. But once my immediate reaction had passed, I was left with the more basic question: Why this book, and why now? If “to be attacked by the enemy is not a bad thing but a good thing,” what is it about Mao, almost thirty years after his death—when the current leaders of China have turned the socialist revolution that he led on its head, and returned to the “capitalist road” that he both foresaw and tried to prevent them from taking—that is still so threatening today? Why do the enemies of Chinese revolutionary socialism feel the need to trash his legacy, and to do so more completely now than ever before? What about Mao is so relevant to the contradictions and struggles in Chinese society and the world today to call forth their attacks?
One cannot discount purely personal and financial elements here. For Chang, the author of the familial autobiography Wild Swans, Mao, and particularly the Cultural Revolution that he led, continue to be a source of deep bitterness. That book focused in particular on the disillusionment and sense of betrayal that both the parents of Jung Chang, and later she herself, felt after their earlier unquestioning and enthusiastic embrace of Mao. This personal history lies at the heart of the new work.7 This is an old pattern. As those familiar with the tradition of such literature know, it is often from among the most fervent revolutionary believers that come the most scathing attacks, after they have “turned.” An element of personal vendetta cannot be dismissed in considering this new work. But Wild Swans, which sold some 10 million copies, was no doubt also immensely rewarding financially. Today Chang “lives in great comfort in London’s plush Notting Hill from the proceeds of her worldwide bestselling book.”8 Presumably there are hopes that the new work will repeat that success, both for the authors and the publishers.
Yet obviously more is at stake here than simple personal rewards, whether emotional or financial. A book like Mao: The Unknown Story, clearly has a political purpose. For those who are filled with hatred for the Chinese Communist revolution—whatever form it may take — it is not enough that the present leaders of China have largely disassociated themselves from Mao and reversed his policies. They still call themselves “Communists,” and it is his picture that continues to hang from the most prominent symbolic center in the entire country, Tiananmen. It is his legacy on which the current leaders even today largely depend for their waning legitimacy. As Jonathan Mirsky asks in regard to the Chinese leadership at present, “Why, then, protect the Chairman now? Because without Mao a black hole would gape beneath the feet of the Communist Party… Without Mao, his heirs -– for that is what they are — would be left dangling in an ideological void.” Mirsky, the former East Asia editor of the Times of London and another of the enthusiastic reviewers of the Chang and Halliday book, continues:
So to demolish the Chairman would be catastrophic for the present leadership. These leaders, after all, continue to emphasize that “the Communist Party makes mistakes but only the Communist Party can correct them.”… But what if the Party itself is a mistake and Mao a yet greater one? China’s leaders are determined to prevent that thought from getting loose in the minds of hundreds of millions of Chinese.
But that, of course, is a major reason why Mao: The Unknown Story had to be written. Not only for anti-Communists like Chang and Halliday, but also for many reviewers, his very name must be extirpated, and even the pro forma ties of the current leaders to his memory must be broken, so that China will again be “free” of any remnant of the revolution he led and the goals he sought.
But why do they care? How does Mao still “hurt” the enemy so much, that they feel the need to devote such effort to launching this unprecedented outpouring of hatred and bile, distorting beyond recognition the very history of the revolution that he led? To what end must even the smallest details of that struggle be denied? Why must Mao be turned into a “monster” more terrible than any other world leader? Why is his role still so central that it is “good,” and not “bad,” that he is being attacked? Finally, how can those who still believe in the goals of the socialist revolution in China meet such attacks with the kind of dialectical response that allowed him to turn the tables, despite setbacks and reversals, on its enemies?
The answer lies in part in understanding that the attack from Chang and Halliday is a measure of how much Mao still represents the Chinese people even today. China is rising, and the entire world is struggling with how to adjust to this new reality. U.S. and British imperial leaders, in particular — and their hangers-on in the academy and the mass media, such as Chang and Halliday — are torn, as the West has always been, between viewing the rapid growth of Chinese power as an opportunity or a threat. On the one hand, the desire to exploit the vast market that is developing in China is irresistible to global capitalists. On the other, they fear not only its economic power, but the political and military might that is rapidly growing in parallel with it.
This is a constant theme in mainstream media in the United States today — not only on the right, but among liberals and progressives as well. The San Jose Mercury News expressed this in a July 17, 2005 front-page headline, “China’s Century Taking Shape.” The ensuing article, by Tim Johnson of Knight Ridder, begins:
If the 20th was the American century, the 21st may belong to China. Just five years into it, China has become the world’s third-largest trader, one of its fastest-growing economies, a rising military power in northeast Asia and a global player extending its influence in Africa, the Middle East and Latin America.”
The New York Times followed with its own expression of concern, “Who’s Afraid of China Inc.?,” explaining how even “avowed free traders” are beginning to worry about its threat to U.S. “national security” (7/24/05, Sect. 3, 1). Similarly, columnist Robert J. Samuelson, discussing the recent Chinese bid for California oil producer UNOCAL — which was abandoned after it became clear that U.S. political resistance would block it — says that “We cannot decide whether China is a threat or an opportunity, and until we do, every discussion of our relations seems to slide into confusion and acrimony” (Washington Post, 7/10/05). A similar ambiguity is very well expressed in the June 27, 2005, issue of Time, in a lengthy Special Report titled “China’s New Revolution: Remaking our world, one deal at a time.” The subheadings reflect the fear as well as opportunities: “Here Comes China! Will the rise of the People’s Republic mean the decline of the U.S.?” and “The People’s Republic has embraced the modern world as never before. Is that cause for celebration or anxiety?”
For those for whom the answer is more threat than opportunity, it is bad enough that even a capitalist China will challenge the United States for global supremacy. But the danger will be that much greater if the Chinese should refuse to abandon their history, and once again take the path to socialist revolution, thereby threatening not only the U.S.-led empire, but the very foundation of global capitalism itself. China must therefore be “cleansed” of its revolutionary past, to the point where not even a tiny remnant of it remains, and its “New Revolution” must be a safely “American-style” one, that is, devoted only to “free markets” and “deals,” not to socialism and the working classes. But here a problem arises. It is not the image of Deng Xiaoping, who introduced “market reforms” after the death of Mao, much less that of the current President Hu Jintao, that Time felt compelled to put on the cover of their Special Report. Rather it is the face of Mao that they chose to represent China, complete with rays of the sun radiating from his head — a representation that was popularized during the years of the Cultural Revolution. Since he stood on the platform of Tiananmen in October 1949 and declared, “the Chinese people have stood up,” he has remained the symbol of the modern emergence of China, and it is therefore over his legacy that the struggle must be waged as to what its character will be, opportunity or threat, friend or foe. For those, like Chang and Halliday, for whom the revolution led by Mao represents the greatest of evils and dangers in the modern world, it is critical that his role as the symbol of the nation is shattered once and for all. The “New China” that is emerging must therefore be swept clean of his example and turned into a pale imitation of the West. Anglo-American “freedom,” in this view, represents the Promised Land to which Jung Chang was finally able to escape at the end of Wild Swans. Only if Mao is demonized and the very nature of the revolutionary socialism for which the Chinese fought under his leadership not just discredited, but totally denied, can the image of China finally be freed from the taint of “Maoism” and can its people experience Western-style “liberation.”
Though research on Mao: The Unknown Story began shortly after the publication of Wild Swans and was ten years in completion, the release of the book by Chang and Halliday, therefore, comes at a time when the very character of China is a matter of not only national, but global debate. The attack on Mao is just one small part of a larger conflict, in which more is at stake than just the image of the Chinese nation. Though Mao both led and represented the national revival of China, for which he is deeply honored by its people, regardless of what class they belong to, his role as the leader of its socialist revolution is even more critical to the contradictions of today, as China’s workers and peasants increasing rebel against the capitalistic exploitation of the “reform” era. For many members of the working classes, the older of whom still have personal memories of life during the time when socialism was the foundation of national policy, Mao continues to represent the possibility of a society free from the exploitation, loss of jobs and social securities, and the vast polarization and corruption of the “reforms.” But this is not merely nostalgia or a vague sense that things were better in the “good old days.” Mao remains a critical reference point to which, over and over again, workers and peasants of China can turn in order to find inspiration and guidance in their struggles.
This relationship is not, of course, lost on the Chinese leaders. As conditions for millions in the working classes continue to worsen, even the official press in China has been forced to confront the growing polarization, and the specter of revolution past.
The gap between China’s richest and poorest citizens is approaching a dangerous level and could lead to social unrest, state media reported… citing a government study.
The most affluent one-fifth of China’s population earn 50 percent of total income, with the bottom one-fifth taking home only 4.7 percent, said the report by the official Xinhua News Agency…
“The income gap, which has exceeded reasonable limits, exhibits a further widening trend. If it continues this way for a long time, the phenomenon may give rise to various sorts of social instability,” it said.
These days, the wealth gap is evident everywhere, from elderly citizens digging through downtown trash bins for plastic bottles to recycle to migrant shacks squeezed between luxury villas in Shanghai’s suburbs. (Associated Press, 9/21/05)
But social unrest is not just potential, as Xinhua tries to imply. It is already extremely widespread. The possible consequences are evident to the government news agency, which knows that memories of the socialist revolution are never far beneath the surface in the consciousness of the Chinese working classes.
Though largely ignored in the West, some of the largest working class protests anywhere in the world are taking place on a virtually daily basis across China, from the strikes in foreign owned export factories of the southern coastal areas and demonstrations in the industrial “rust belts” of the central and northeastern provinces, to revolts over corrupt officials and environmental disasters in suburbs around eastern cities and in isolated villages in western rural regions. Noting that, in figures released by the Minister for Public Security, “mass incidents, or demonstrations and riots,” rose to 74,000 in 2004, up from just 10,000 a decade ago, and 58,000 in 2003, the New York Times reported,
For reasons that range from rampant industrial pollution to widespread evictions and land seizures by corrupt local governments in cahoots with increasingly powerful property developers, ordinary Chinese seem to be saying they are fed up and won’t take it any more.
Each week brings news of at least one or two incidents, with thousands of villagers in a pitched battle with the police, or bloody crackdowns in which hundreds of protesters are tear-gassed and clubbed during roundups by the police. And by the government’s own official tally, hundreds of these events each week escape wider public attention altogether (8/24/05, A4).
Such protests are a daily occurrence in the countryside. “Riots have become a fixture of rural life in China — more than 200 ‘mass incidents of unrest’ occurred each day in 2004, police statistics show — undermining the party’s insistence on social stability” (New York Times, 3/12/06, 8). These demonstrations have extended into the very heart of the “market reform” regions, such as downtown Shanghai, the new center of Chinese commercial capital. In these struggles, workers and peasants alike often contrast the ideas Mao advanced and the socialist policies he helped to introduce with the degraded conditions of their lives today.
In one protest, middle-aged residents invoked rebellious slogans from their youth during the Cultural Revolution, reportedly saying things like ‘to rebel is just’ as they denounced summary evictions to make way for high-rise developers and demanded fair compensation (New York Times, 8/24/05, A4).
But regardless of whether they explicitly invoke his name or not, it is Mao who provides a historical alternative in both analysis and practice to their current situation, and a point of unity for those who oppose the present capitalistic and corrupt “reform” policies.
One example of this is the widespread support demonstrated for the “Zhengzhou 4,” worker activists in that city in central Henan Province, who distributed a leaflet denouncing the current direction of the party and state at a memorial celebration on the 28th anniversary of his death. They invoked Mao against the rampant capitalism and corruption of the present leaders, calling on the latter to return to the socialist path — a “crime” for which two of them were arrested and sentenced to three years in prison. But these four activists are by no means isolated. Leftists came from all over China to show solidarity outside of their closed trial, websites published lengthy discussions of the case and defenses of their actions, and more than 100 Chinese — a very large number given the political risks and restricted communication channels — signed a petition letter protesting their imprisonment, joined by an equal number outside the country, an unprecedented international alliance in support of militant workers there.
Such members of the left in China today are both diverse and diffuse. There are three primary groupings: 1) The “old” left, centered especially in the party and state bodies, includes many who took an initially favorable attitude toward the Deng Xiaoping “reforms,” but who have become increasingly alienated by their openly capitalistic direction and impact; 2) the “Maoists,” who still uphold the ideological positions and policies of the pre-Deng era, and who have their popular base largely among the workers and peasants; and 3) a “new left” which, like its namesake in the United States, is found especially among the younger generations, and though generally more open to the Mao legacy than the “old” leftists, is also more influenced by sociological and social democratic concepts, and is based in the universities and new NGOs in particular. However, the line between these various “lefts” is by no means rigid or exclusive. The leftist groupings overlap and influence each other, and followers of all of them are found in every generation, class and social position. Any parallels with similar leftist categorizations — especially the “new” left — in the West should also not be overdrawn, as they each have their own “specific Chinese characteristics” that reflect the history of the struggle there. In general, their organizational expressions—such as journals, websites, forums, bookstores, study groups, etc. — tend to be tenuous and short-lived, because attempts to create more formal leftist groupings or outlets are subject to repression by the state and party authorities, especially if they take a more militant position, criticize the highest national leadership, or attempt to mobilize popular opposition or public actions.9
Mao: The Unknown Story must thus be understood as one salvo in the battle for the “hearts and minds” of the Chinese people as they face a critical turning point, whether to plunge completely over the cliff of capitalist restoration and corporate “globalization,” or to turn back from the precipice and begin to rebuild a society in which socialism and the working classes have a meaningful role in determining the direction of official policy. In this sense, the Chang and Halliday book is a weapon in the class struggle that has once again begun to emerge in China with gathering force. Its treatment of the conflicts of classes in the revolution makes this clear. In its opening paragraphs, the book states that in traditional Mandarin society “high positions were open to all through education,” and that those from “any background” could thereby gain wealth and power (4-5)—a literal truth that blandly disguises and casually dismisses the oppression of the peasantry, and the necessity of revolutionary struggle to end it. The peasant uprising of the 1920s, in turn, is dismissed as little more than thuggery and banditry, while Mao is portrayed as joining and using it only to advance his own career (41-42). The release of Mao: The Unknown Story is thus part of the strategic moves by those who oppose the new potential for revolution that is developing among intellectuals as well as the working classes. It is against such a potential that the government has issued a new “strongly worded” warning in People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s mouthpiece, headlined “Maintain Stability to Speed Development” and warning citizens “to obey the law, saying that threats to social order would not be tolerated” (New York Times, 8/24/05, A4). Soon after this statement, an even more stringent crackdown on websites and other forms of electronic exchange was begun.
Beyond such acts as those in support of the Zhengzhou 4, there are other signs as well of the ongoing refusal to let the struggles of the past die. In a park in a working class neighborhood in Zhengzhou, hundreds — and up to a thousand or so on weekends — gather each evening to sing the old revolutionary songs and to uphold the legacy of the Mao era. In a similar, if less developed vein, workers and peasants often express the same kinds of views: life was different and better in the period under Mao, before China took the “capitalist road” that he warned against. Of course, such attitudes are far from universal. There are some workers and peasants who are “making it” under the current “reforms,” and even a few who are “getting rich,” as Deng Xiaoping urged them to do. Young members of the working classes, in particular, who do not have memories of the socialist era, are increasingly being drawn into the consumer world of China today, where individualistic economic pursuits are the overriding purpose of life. But enough workers and peasants still find in Mao the inspiration for their struggles to provoke a very harsh response — as exemplified by the case of the Zhengzhou 4 — not only from party and state authorities, but from all those who fear a return to the socialist policies that he advanced, to the class struggles that he led, and above all, to the Cultural Revolution, the last great campaign that he initiated to keep the Chinese from turning back to the “capitalist road.”10
With protests growing ever larger, such social contradictions are rapidly rising. But it is not simply the expanding struggles of the working classes that are at issue here. So far, most of these demonstrations and even violent riots have been quite isolated and relatively spontaneous, focused around the conditions in an individual factory, village or urban neighborhood. Though efforts are growing to link up these struggles on a wider basis—for example, by bringing together representatives of all the factories in a city, as occurred in Shenyang, or even by developing ties between workers and peasants in a given region—there is overall little coordination so far. The great fear of the authorities and their supporters, therefore, is that the current protests will begin to be led by those with a broader sense of their strategic possibilities, and who have as their goal not local protest, but a challenge to the entire system of capitalist “reforms.” There are already signs of growing coordination, as “the protests are increasingly feeding off each other, powered by information exchanges through the internet.”11 In Taishi village in Guangdong Province, a sit-in and fast by hundreds of peasants protesting the confiscation of land for property development, have been supported by “a pro-democracy activist network” that “issues regular e-mails with information about the campaign and statements from the villagers,” who are demanding not only that their immediate claim be addressed, but justice, the rule of law, democratic participation, and the right “as master of the country… to choose our own future.”12 But though liberal activists and NGOs such as these pose a growing challenge to state and party control, it is the left, with its historic ties to Mao and the socialist revolution, that poses the greatest danger.
More than anything else, what the present leaders of China are determined to prevent, is a revival of “Maoism,” and the linking up of leftist intellectuals with the working classes. They have reason to be afraid. Over the past five or so years, the left has reemerged in China, still small, divided and marginalized, but once again becoming a significant part of the national scene, driven in large part by the growing struggles of the workers and peasants themselves, who are both creating renewed pressure and providing inspiration for activism among all social strata. In increasing numbers, intellectuals and university students, in the face of the growing polarization and corruption of the “reform” era, have begun to turn back to Mao for guidance, and to link up once again with the new working class movement — as exemplified, once again, by the widespread leftist support for the Zhengzhou 4, which may have contributed to the release of one of the imprisoned activists, ostensibly for health reasons. Anecdotal evidence confirms this process, in which workers and peasants themselves are “educating the educated.” One leading intellectual, for example, turned to the “left” after spending extended time in the rural areas, because every person he met in his visits with peasants in the villages supported Mao, in contrast to the attitudes of urban liberals. So too, a progressive academic in Beijing, spoke of how she was “moving back toward” Mao, because his critique of the “capitalist road” rings increasingly true today.13 As more than one activist put it, having tried “everything else” to explain what is happening in China, without finding answers for the sharpening polarization and other negative social factors, many are turning again to “Mao Zedong Thought” for guidance.14
This has significant ideological and practical consequences. There is a growing range of publications, websites and forums that are devoted to leftist analysis and critiques of the “reform” policies.15 In addition, especially among young intellectuals, there is a questioning approach to the widely accepted negative interpretations of the Mao era put forward after his death. But even among “old” leftists, many of whom earlier bought in at least partially to the “reform” policies under Deng Xiaoping, there is a new willingness to criticize the direction of the party and state, and to do so more openly than they had been prepared to do for many years. The March 2006 session of the National People’s Congress was thus, according to the New York Times, consumed “for the first time in perhaps a decade… with an ideological debate over socialism and capitalism that many assumed had been buried by China’s long streak of fast economic growth” (3/12/06, 1, 8):
The controversy has forced the government to shelve a draft law to protect property rights that had been expected to win pro forma passage and highlighted the resurgent influence of a small but vocal group of socialist-leaning scholars and policy advisers. These old-style leftist thinkers have used China’s rising income gap and increasing social unrest to raise doubts about what they see as the country’s headlong pursuit of private wealth and market-driven economic development…
Those who dismissed the attack as a throwback to an earlier era underestimated the continued appeal of socialist ideas in a country where glaring disparities between rich and poor, rampant corruption, labor abuses and land seizures offer daily reminders of how far China has strayed from its official ideology. (Ibid.)
These changing attitudes have a broad popular base as well, such as the four million or so Chinese — ranging “from backpacking college students to busloads of middle-aged workers on company excursions” — who each year visit Yan’an, the remote base in the Northwest where the Long March ended, and from which Mao led the guerrilla struggle against the Japanese and launched the final showdown with Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalists. Despite or perhaps because of its remoteness, this city has remained a symbol of the spirit of sacrifice and closeness to the people that marked the revolution, standing in such contrast to the luxury, corruption and exploitation today (New York Times, 7/1/05, A4).
Any renewed interest in the early revolutionary period would be enough alone to worry those who oppose the revival of “Maoism.” But the turn to the left of many young intellectuals, in particular, takes a practical form as well, and one of potentially great significance for the working class struggle, that is even more threatening to those who fear a revival of the alliances of the Mao era. Beginning around five years ago, small Marxist study groups began to emerge on a few of the more elite university campuses. Originally quite isolated and devoted to reading the classical texts of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and especially Mao, these early efforts have blossomed into a much more widespread network of leftist campus organizations today, which have broadened out both in the issues that they deal with and their level of activism. From a growing number of universities, students are now traveling to cities like Zhengzhou to meet with workers, study and report on their conditions, and offer both legal and material support to their struggles. A similar student organization, the Sons [sic] of the Peasants, is sending student delegations to the rural areas. Though still small, and barely a blip on the general university scene, where most students are devoted only to their studies and careers, these leftist campus organizations are nevertheless a dramatic new development. Through this newest movement, hundreds of college students on the left, and those with generally progressive politics, are beginning to gain practical experience of the conditions and struggles of the working classes, and even joining them in opposing the current policies of the state and party authorities — a linkage that has not occurred since the Cultural Revolution.
While still largely marginalized, and subject to harassment by the government — some of those trying to go to Zhengzhou were even denied permission to get off at the railroad station there — these student organizations are rapidly breaking down the great gap that had opened up between intellectuals, and workers and peasants, under the Deng “reforms,” when professional elitism and a narrow focus on academic achievement were once again the basis of official educational policy. Attacks on Mao, such as the new one by Chang and Halliday, must therefore be viewed in the context of attempts to head off the growing alliance on the left bringing together both intellectuals and the working classes. The younger generation, in particular, must be “inoculated” against the “Maoist” threat.
Chang herself has grandiose dreams for the impact that the book will have not only inside China, but also in the rest of the world. As she told journalist Lisa Allardice,
“As long as China exists people will want to read our book, because this is the real history about modern China. I know I should be making understatements and being self-deprecating, but I think this book will shake the world and will help shape China.”16 From such remarks, it is clear that Chang and Halliday see their book as a political work, whose purpose is to intervene in the ongoing debate over China’s direction.
The significance of Mao: The Unknown Story extends beyond China. The same forces found there are increasingly felt worldwide. Mao, like Ho Chi Minh and later Fidel Castro, was a preeminent representative of the unification of national liberation and socialist revolution. It was against this combination, more than any other, that the “Cold War” — which in reality was an almost continuous series of “hot wars” — was conducted. From the U.S. protective umbrella thrown over Taiwan (to which the defeated Nationalists escaped after the triumph of the Chinese revolution), through Korea, the Bay of Pigs, Vietnam and numerous “contra” wars in Latin America and Africa, the West struggled to contain and “roll back” Communism by breaking apart the unity of anti-imperialism and socialism most evident in certain Third World revolutions. With the collapse of the Soviet Bloc and the turn of China once again toward capitalism, the forces of U.S. imperialism and their intellectual hangers-on thought that they had once and for all driven a stake through the heart of the threat that leftists posed to their global rule, and that, in the words of Francis Fukuyama, “the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution” had finally and permanently arrived.
But the left refuses to stay in its grave. As the London Observer noted recently, in response to a two-page spread in the right-wing Daily Mail which vilified a “penniless asylum seeker” who “has been dead since 1883,” “‘Marx the Monster’ was the Mail’s furious reaction to the news that thousands of Radio 4 listeners had chosen Karl Marx as their favorite thinker. ‘His genocidal disciples include Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot -– and even Mugabe. So why has Karl Marx just been voted the greatest philosopher ever?’” (6/17/05). “Monster,” it seems, is the new favorite term du jour applied to both Marx and Mao, but those who use it are left unable to explain why millions worldwide refuse to abandon them. The answer, as the Observer suggested, is that what fuels the left’s revival is capitalism itself. The contradictions of the global capitalist system, seen in China today as vividly as anywhere, continually drive not only the working classes, but the intellectuals, back toward leftist interpretations of the world, because these alone can explain what is happening in the lives of the people, and offer the possibility not just of minor adjustments to, but the overthrowing of the system that oppresses them. Marx and his “disciples,” including Mao, must therefore once more be totally discredited, and declared to be “Monsters.”17
As in the Chinese case, the threat here is not just ideological. Across the Third World in particular, but even in the core countries of the empire, tens of millions are now challenging capitalist “globalization” on a daily basis. The turn of Latin America to the left, the resistance of the most oppressed and marginalized indigenous members of global society to economic and environmental depredations, the growing struggles of Asian workers and peasants against the capitalist multinationals, the demands from Africa for debt relief and the right to low-cost drugs for AIDS, and the massive demonstrations which greet the leaders of empire wherever they gather, most recently at the WTO meeting in Hong Kong — all are signs of this struggle. The present movement represents an unprecedented upsurge of popular organization against the corporate ravaging, environmental devastation, and economic and social polarizing that is the inevitable accompaniment of an unrestrained capitalism.
But as was true during the Cold War, the “anti-globalization” aspects of the struggle — that is, resistance to the U.S.-dominated empire and expanding corporate control — and its anti-capitalist, and especially pro-socialist, elements are hard to bring together. In formations such as the World Social Forum, which has been at the forefront of the “global justice” movement, and especially among its participants and followers in the United States, there are strong strains of resistance both to the legacy of socialist revolutions and to leftist ideology in general. Global justice activists find little meeting ground with revolutionaries such as the Nepalese or Peruvian “Maoists,” or the Marxist guerrilla movements in Colombia or the Philippines, or even, for some, the Zapatistas from Chiapas, who hardly fit the more traditional “model” of such struggles. Even the millions of working-class protesters in China have received little attention from the “anti-globalization” forces, not only because of their limited ability to take part in gatherings such as the WSF, but perhaps because they too are considered tainted by socialist revolution and “Maoism.”18 Many in the global justice movement, of course, do identify themselves as socialists, though of widely different varieties — and, for example, eagerly support the “Bolivarian Socialism” of President Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, where the 2006 WSF was held.
Just as in the era of anti-colonialism, only in certain cases do rebellion against the imperial system and socialist revolution come together in a sustained fashion, and this lack of unity remains one of the greatest weaknesses again today. As in China, therefore, it is necessary for the imperialists and their ideological supporters to do everything in their power to prevent any deepening of the ties between the working classes and the revolutionary forces of the left, between the global justice movement and the struggle for socialism. The existing divisions, which already weaken the forces that oppose both the U.S.-dominated empire and the capitalist system, must therefore be further exacerbated. The book by Chang and Halliday must be seen as part of this global battle, a worldwide right-wing reaction, to head off as much as possible the unification that Mao represented between anti-imperialism and socialist revolution. The point here is not that Mao: The Unknown Story or its reviewers explicitly address all of these various aspects of the current global struggle, but rather that they are one part of the general anti-left “atmosphere” of the present time.21
Part of what Mao was establishing by his own class analysis, therefore — his language closely parallels that of Lenin only a few years earlier, though it is unclear to what extent he was directly familiar with his writings — was the similar changes in China that would allow a new and more successful stage of the revolution in the countryside, beyond what feudal peasant rebellions had accomplished. Thus as he analyzed the less well off segment of the petty bourgeoisie, among whom he includes “owner-peasants,”
This situating of the book as part of a worldwide class conflict and ideological battle, also points to the direction that will have to be taken in countering its claims. Each of the specific “charges” that the authors bring against Mao will have to be confronted. Their refutation will rest first and foremost on those who knew and worked with Mao directly, as previously occurred in the case of Li Zhisui, when former comrades in the party and state denounced his claims and defended both the personal character and the revolutionary accomplishments of the Chinese leader. But since Chang and Halliday cite many such earlier associates of Mao themselves, this will mean helping to mobilize those who hold opposing views to come forward with their own counter version of key events and remembrances of his work and life. In this, historians and “China scholars” will also no doubt join in, bringing a more nuanced and balanced review of the record of the Mao era. At the same time, the methodology of Chang and Halliday, and in particular their loose approach to documentation, highly selective and biased use and interpretation of historical events, and contradictions with their own earlier works will have to be addressed.
Such questions need not be raised only by the left. They have already been partly conceded even by some of the most virulent early reviewers, and exposed by those who take a more objective and critical approach. “China scholars across the world are questioning the veracity of historical accounts” in the book, as well “as factual errors and dubious use of sources –- which even favorable reviewers such as Princeton’s Perry Link (an editor of the Tiananmen Papers) have felt compelled to criticize.”19 But a more thorough confrontation with and refutation of the claims of Chang and Halliday will have to await a broader distribution of their book, and especially access to it in China. Such a detailed rebuttal will take time, and require a very sustained and determined struggle.
Though an effort can begin even now, to refute the most outrageous aspects of this book, attempting a detailed critique of the “mistakes” in Mao: The Unknown Story is roughly akin to the task of correcting the “grammatical errors” in Finnegan’s Wake. It is not just that a thorough effort of this kind would require a book of at least the same length as the original. It is that it is not the details, but the entire approach that is at stake here. Joyce was not trying to write “good English” in his novel, but rather to challenge the very rules of the language, and Chang and Halliday have equally little intention of following the usual norms of historical methodology, but rather set out to twist every aspect of their material to a single goal: demolishing Mao, all the ideas he stood for, and everything he accomplished. As a result, their work too has an almost Joycean stream of consciousness quality, as page after page pours forth a veritable river of their claims, assertions and interpretations, based in many cases on the flimsiest of sources, free of any pause for balanced analysis, and put forth as unchallengeable truths without reference to what is often a wealth of opposing evidence. Pushed in one of her interviews at the time of the U.S. release of the book whether she could think of even one single redeeming aspect to Mao, Chang after a long hesitation grudgingly conceded something to the effect that he “liked books.” The moment was reminiscent of the one when Bush was asked to name just one solitary mistake he had made, followed by a lengthy pause, and then a typically inane reference to some all but meaningless “error” on his part. The similarity is not coincidental, because for Chang and Halliday too, “you are either with us, or you are with Mao.” There is no middle ground, no room for debate or nuance. Each of the primary claims of Chang and Halliday rests on others. Any minor concession on their part, even of the possibility of doubt or error, any hint that Mao might have been something other than the pure embodiment of evil, thus threatens to bring the entire edifice down, since to challenge a single point opens the floodgate to the idea that their entire thesis is wrong. Both commissions and omissions mark this approach, making it very hard to pin down. Nevertheless, it is possible to pick out bits of flotsam as they rush by, and examine them.
Take, for example, the claim by Chang and Halliday that Mao was ideologically “shaky” and “vague” and a poor Marxist, and that even after becoming a Communist, he “was not a fervent believer. This absence of heartfelt commitment would result in a most unconventional and unusual relation with his Party throughout his life, even when he was the head of that Party.” (21, 35, 43) Those familiar with the history of leftist theory and analysis know that there has long been debate and disagreement over the nature of the Marxism practiced by Mao, in particular regarding such questions as his dependence on a “peasant army” as the main force of the revolution in China, which some claim breaks with “classical” Marxism-Leninism, or his conflicts with the Soviet Union on the issue of revisionism and his opening to the West. To this day, the ranks of leftists across the world are frequently divided by whether they follow the interpretations of Marx that were advocated by Mao or competing tendencies. Nevertheless, the attempt by Chang and Halliday to dismiss him as lacking in his commitment to and knowledge of Marxism is ridiculous, and says more about their own approach than about the Chinese leader. It is refuted by the writings of Mao himself. Like many in China, and especially those like him who had not studied abroad, Mao had little access initially to Marxist texts. But from his earliest works, such as the “Analysis of the Classes in Chinese Society” and the “Report on an Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan” (which gave theoretical and practical guidance to the new revolutionary uprising in the rural areas, and were a basis for the later land reform movement), through his outlining of the broad alliance needed to defeat the Japanese, to his addresses to the “Yenan Forum on Art and Culture” and his last writings on the continuation of the class struggle on the ideological plane in the era of the transition to socialism, Mao not only exhibited a thorough grasp of the fundamentals of Marxism, but made his own profound and lasting contributions to the expansion of its canon. His theoretical essays, such as “On Contradiction,” brought to an entire generation of the left, not only in China but worldwide, a deeper understanding and extension of Marxist dialectics. In the United States, these and similar works had a formative influence on such diverse groups as the Black Panthers, Redstockings — part of the most radical wing of the Women’s Liberation Movement — and various alternative academic and professional bodies. Above all, Mao made the basic concepts of Marx accessible to hundreds of millions of workers and peasants.
But Chang and Halliday either ignore these works entirely, or distort them to serve their own purposes. Thus they dismiss the “Analysis of the Classes in Chinese Society” and similar writings from 1926, when Mao first wrote about the peasants, as follows:
In his articles, Mao had attempted to apply Communist “class analysis” to the peasantry by categorizing those who owned their small plot of land as “petty bourgeoisie” and farmhands as “proletariat.” A blistering critique appeared in the Soviet advisers’ magazine, Kanton, which reached a high-grade readership in Russia, where the first personal name on the distribution list was Stalin’s. The critic, Volin, a Russian expert on the peasantry [referred to in the endnotes as “V-n” (S.N. Belenkii)—R.W.], accused Mao of arguing as though the peasants were living in a capitalist society, when China was only at the feudal stage: “one very important error leaps sharply to the eye:… that Chinese society, according to Mao, is one with a developed capitalist structure.” Mao’s article was said to be “unscientific,” “indiscriminate and “exceptionally schematic.”20
But as a former Red Guard and historian of Russia, respectively, Chang and especially Halliday — whose main contribution to their book was apparently to pore over newly released Soviet documents — must know that such questions were part of a much larger debate over the class nature of the peasantry raging at the time. The analysis made by Mao not only expands on the one going back to Engels, based on “poor,” “middle,” and “rich” peasants — which the authors claim was then the official one in Russia — but it also parallels the later elaboration by Lenin, who had stressed the new capitalistic elements in the Russian countryside and their impact in transforming the peasantry from a relatively unitary feudal class to a more differentiated one as a segment of bourgeois society.
In recent years, moreover, suffering from the oppression and exploitation of the imperialists, the warlords, the feudal landlords and the big comprador-bourgeoisie, they have become aware that the world is no longer what it was.22
But it was especially by mobilizing the “semi-proletarian” poor peasants and the “rural proletariat” who hired out their labor (16-18) that he helped to lead the consolidation of the “Red Political Power” of the rural Soviets in China. Chang and Halliday, however, choose to “substitute” Volin for Lenin, obscuring the close linkage of the analysis by Mao to that of the founder of Bolshevism, and the entire background and context of this debate. They also leave out any mention of the frequent references that Mao made, here and elsewhere in the same period, to the lingering feudal aspects of rural Chinese society, or his statements such as, “There is as yet little modern capitalist farming in China” (18) — since to admit that he analyzed both the past class system and the new elements rapidly spreading in the countryside under the impact of imperialism and capitalism would destroy their thesis. It is by such sleight of hand, repeated throughout their book, that they attempt to paint a portrait of Mao as never having truly embraced Marxism, and therefore as being nothing but an opportunist adopting it to advance his career.
But it is their treatment of his groundbreaking 1927 “Report on an Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan” that is among the most egregious in the entire book. It is here that Chang and Halliday first lay out their claim that Mao was a bloodthirsty tyrant. While it is accurate that this stay in his home province was a turning point for him, it was the successes of the revolutionary uprising of the peasants taken as a whole, which of necessity included the violent methods which they used to overthrow millennia of local oppression, that captured his enthusiasm. But the authors of Mao: The Unknown Story reduce this in all aspects simply to a discovery of his personal love of violence, stripped of its social dimension. Thus, for example, they paint the following picture:
Mao was very taken with one weapon, the suobiao, a sharp, twin-edged knife with a long handle like a lance: “it… makes all landed tyrants and bad gentry tremble at the sight of it. The Hunan revolutionary authorities should… make sure every young and middle-aged male has one. There should be no limit put on [the use of] it.” (42)
Here is the actual passage from the section that they quote, titled “Overthrowing the Armed Forces of the Landlords and Establishing Those of the Peasants”:
Every county where there is a peasant movement has a rapidly growing spear corps. There peasants thus armed form an “irregular household militia.” This multitude equipped with spears, which is larger than the old armed forces mentioned above, is a new-born armed power the mere sight of which makes the local tyrants and evil gentry tremble. The revolutionary authorities in Hunan should see to it that it is built up on a really extensive scale among the more than twenty million peasants in the seventy-five counties of the province, that every peasant, whether young or in his prime, possesses a spear, and that no restrictions are imposed as though a spear were something dreadful. Anyone who is scared at the sight of the spear corps is indeed a weakling! Only the local tyrants and evil gentry are frightened of them, but no revolutionaries should take fright.23
By careful selection of a few phrases and the clever use of ellipses — favorites among their many techniques — in the hands of Chang and Halliday, this discussion of a “spear corps,” which is overthrowing the armed power of the feudal tyrants and gentry, becomes a celebration of the “spears” themselves, leaving the impression that it is the individual weapons, rather than the peasant militia, whose sight so frightens their oppressors and whose use Mao says should be unrestricted. In this way, support for the revolutionary violence of the masses is turned into a fascination with a single weapon! From this, in turn, Chang and Halliday “read the mind” of Mao, baldly stating that he was “taken with” its presumably gruesome usage — all the better for being left to a fertile imagination.
Such passages become the building blocks by which the authors assert that, during his investigation of the peasant movement, “he had undergone a dramatic change.”
What really happened was that Mao discovered in himself a love for bloodthirsty thuggery. This gut enjoyment, which verged on sadism, meshed with, but preceded his affinity for Leninist violence. Mao did not come to violence via theory. The propensity sprang from his character, and was to have a profound impact on his future methods of rule. (41).
And so on. All the passages in the “Report” which express excitement over the uprising of the peasants — such as “If your revolutionary viewpoint is firmly established and if you have been to the villages and looked around, you will undoubtedly feel thrilled as never before” (27) — are twisted by Chang and Halliday into “‘a kind of ecstasy never experienced before’” over the methodology of violence itself. Thus they state, “His descriptions of the brutality oozed excitement, and flowed with an adrenaline rush. ‘It is wonderful! It is wonderful!’ he exulted” (42). The authors fail to note that the use of this last word — in the English edition it is rendered as “Fine” — is in criticism of those, mainly in the cities, who viewed as “Terrible” the revolutionary peasant uprising as a whole. It is not a simple celebration of violence per se, as they try to imply (42). It was also in this report that Mao wrote his famous lines, beginning, “a revolution is not a dinner party,” which Chang and Halliday quote as one more piece of their “evidence” of his enjoyment of the violent methods employed by the peasants. But they fail to quote the sentences which immediately precede this passage, where Mao recounts how in meting out justice, “The peasants are clear-sighted. Who is bad and who is not, who is the worst and who is not quite so vicious, who deserves severe punishment and who deserves to be let off lightly — the peasants keep clear accounts, and very seldom has the punishment exceeded the crime” (28). A celebration of pure bloodthirstiness should be made of sterner stuff. It would also be impossible to know, from reading the treatment of the “Report” by Chang and Halliday, that its thirty plus pages include not only support for a limited campaign of Red “terror for a while” — to suppress those who “For ages… have used their power to tyrannize over the peasants and trample them underfoot” — but also discussions of how “the forces of rural democracy have risen to overthrow the forces of rural feudalism,” the attempts of the revolutionary peasant associations at “eliminating banditry,” their “movement for education,” their “overthrowing… the masculine authority of husbands,” and even such details as their rule on how many pigs a family could keep, since such domestic animals devoured grain without producing an equal quantity of food. This report brought alive, especially for those in the cities, including Communists unfamiliar with the rural areas, not only the conditions and suffering of the vast majority of the Chinese people, but the nature of the revolutionary society that they were starting to give shape to there. It was a founding document in the global shift that Mao as much as or more than anyone helped to lead to an entirely new stage in the struggle for socialism, in which “the countryside surrounds the cities” and the vast majority of the world population who were peasants formed the basis for “people’s war” — a movement that not only swept through the global South from Vietnam to Cuba and Angola during the lifetime of Mao himself, but continues down to today among those calling themselves “Maoist” revolutionaries in Nepal, India, the Philippines, and the Andes, and has echoes in other struggles, such as that of the Zapatistas in Mexico and many rural and indigenous communities in Bolivia and elsewhere in Latin America and South and Southeast Asia.
It is not only in matters of ideology, class analysis and personal attitudes that Chang and Halliday totally distort the legacy of Mao, however. They show an equal determination to discount and twist all of the practical achievements of the revolution. Nowhere is this more glaring than in their treatment — or more properly non-treatment — of the accomplishments in health care. Largely ignored altogether, there are only three brief references to it in the entire book. The first discusses inequalities in the medical treatment for high cadre compared to average soldiers and residents in Yan’an in the early 1940s (239-40). The second contrasts high budget expenses for the military to sharply lower ones for education, culture and health care at the start of the 1950s.
In order to save money on health, the regime resorted to schemes like hygiene drives, which called for killing not only flies and rats, but in some areas also cats and dogs, although, curiously, it never extended to cleaning up China’s stinking, and pestiferous, toilets, which survived uncleansed throughout Mao’s reign. (381)
The final reference returns to the theme of overemphasis on the military at the expense of other social needs, claiming that at the end of the Cultural Revolution, “Health and education were getting well under half of the already tiny percentage of investment that they had been receiving at the outset of Mao’s rule” (620). Except for a handful of even briefer references along similar lines to hospitals, that is it! But even these few sparse references are distorted to make the gains of the revolution under Mao appear instead as forms of inequality and neglect. It takes an almost pathological perversity to attempt to twist the sanitary “clean up” campaigns directed toward removing unhealthy conditions in which disease-bearing pests thrived, drives that within a few years wiped out illnesses which had plagued hundreds of millions of Chinese since time immemorial, into just one more example of supposed indifference toward and manipulation of the working classes, and of the peasants in particular. The era of the Cultural Revolution especially, saw unique contributions by China to the effort to bring medical care to peasants. The health campaigns initiated by Mao were models of the application of preventive methods in a poor country lacking in medical resources, particularly in the rural areas. The training of “Barefoot Doctors” and the “sending down” of health care providers from the cities to the countryside, redirected the medical system of the country from its overwhelmingly urban and elitist base to the rural areas, where the vast majority of the population lived virtually without any health care facilities or personnel. Using peasant semi-professionals, who were drawn from their own villages and who mixed traditional Chinese and Western methods of treatment, these approaches were a direct result of the ideological shift which Mao initiated during the Cultural Revolution period.
Mobo Gao, who grew up in the Mao era in a village in Jiangxi province, and who has returned many times to do further research there, summarizes the results he found:
If we are to single out the area in which Gao villagers benefited most in Mao’s time, it was health. The child mortality rate has been reduced impressively since the 1960s. It was during the Mao period that Gao villagers, for the first time in the history of the village, had access to modern medical services on their doorstep. It was also during this period that vaccination and immunisation were introduced and carried out regularly, and the epidemic of schistosomiasis was brought under control.24 In treating the latter disease, it was not only the practical measures, but the change in attitude initiated by Mao as to who should get medical care, that proved to be crucial.
It was during the two most radical periods, the Great Leap Forward in 1958 and in 1970 during the Cultural Revolution in Mao’s China, that most people were checked and treated. This cannot be a coincidence. In almost every political campaign, Mao’s intention was to target the privileged and powerholders such as intellectuals and Communist Party cadres, and to favour the most disadvantaged such as rural dwellers and the poor.25
The sum of such reviews by those who have examined the book up to now leads to the conclusion that this is, indeed, a biography of Mao “unlike any other,” but not in the positive sense that Chang and Halliday try to claim for it. As Kristof notes, in their rendering of events, “Mao comes across as such a villain that he never really becomes three-dimensional,” and he is “presented as such a bumbling psychopath that it’s hard to comprehend how he bested all his rivals to lead China and emerge as one of the most worshipped figures in history” (cit. note 6: 11). Here lies the fundamental flaw in the attempted “trashing” of Mao by those like Chang and Halliday and others of their ilk. For what such a dismissive approach cannot account for is how the largest revolutionary struggle in world history, stretching over more than half a century and involving between a fifth and a fourth of all humanity, overturning the centuries-old class structure of the Chinese empire, especially in the countryside, defeating both internal enemies and external imperialism, and transforming the lives of hundreds of millions of workers and peasants in the most profound ways, can have been accomplished with the kind of leader that they picture Mao to have been.
Such an attempt to reduce history to primarily the role of “great personages” — and in this case a supposedly monstrously evil one — denigrates both the struggle and wisdom of the people of China, and in particular its working classes, who followed him through thick and thin, victories and defeats, vast accomplishments and terrible losses. It also ignores the complexity of any social transformation, especially one on the scale of the Chinese revolution, and of those who lead it. Mao, like all the great revolutionaries, was a product of both his time and culture, who despite his profound radicalism, was nevertheless bound by the limits of the society of China that he inherited, and inevitably, as both a human being and a leader, showed weaknesses as well as strengths. His record as the primary guide of the decades-long Chinese revolutionary struggle must be and is constantly being reviewed, within the context of not only China itself, but the powerful global forces shaping his times. Both the great victories of the revolution and their extremely high cost are part of this necessary review. Thus the deaths that occurred under his leadership, whatever their exact number, most notably during the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, must be weighed against the tens of millions of lives, mainly of the working classes, and especially the peasants, that were saved and extended by the health and other social policies that he launched as part of those same campaigns. Any efforts to dehumanize Mao into a one-dimensional “monster,” therefore, as he is portrayed by Chang and Halliday, result not in a better historical understanding, but become instead an empty exercise in warped political propaganda.
So dramatic were the resulting gains in health that they altered the demographic profile of China, in ways that were still apparent as late as the 1990s, long after Mao died in 1976.
“The health-care system really is a shining light from the Maoist era that continues to shine to this day,” Gail E. Henderson, an expert on Chinese health care at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, said in an interview. “It’s a model for the developing world…”
[According to Dr. B.P. Kean, of the World Health Organization] If you just go through the figures — life expectancy, infant mortality, first three causes of death — without knowing which country it is, it would be very difficult to pick the country as China and almost impossible to pick it as a developing country…
Plague, tuberculosis and other diseases still exist at the margins of Chinese society, but by channeling funds toward prevention of disease and basic care, the Government has saved tens of millions of lives. (New York Times, 4/14/91, 1)
Infant mortality was lower and life expectancy higher in Shanghai at the end of the 1980s than in New York City, though both average income and expenditures on its health system were some 30-40 times greater in the latter. (Ibid.) By then, a person in China could expect to live 12 years longer than one in India (New York Times, 3/30/91, 2), though they had been roughly equal in the 1940s. These extraordinary gains, and especially the redirection of limited medical services from the mainly urban elite to the working classes, are entirely ignored by Chang and Halliday, who similarly dismiss or distort the advances that took place in education and culture, where democratizing elements were introduced in both personnel and subject matter, in the rural areas especially, as well as advances in infrastructure development, with the building of schools, health clinics, water reservoirs, irrigation systems, and village industries — many of which have survived to today, though they are increasingly being abandoned. As Han Dongping — who like Mobo Gao grew up in a village during the Mao era — recounts these gains in his home county of Jimo in Shandong Province, the number of high schools increased from 2 at the start of the Cultural Revolution in 1965, to 17 by 1969, and 84 by 1976, while the number of students attending was 60 times higher by the end of the same period. From education being a rare experience in his village and family, it had become common. Together with these new opportunities, the relation of teachers to students became much more equal, workers and peasants played a new role in the governing of schools, and the content of what was taught was redirected to practical knowledge of use to their lives. Similar advances democratized all social relationships, of parents to children, husbands to wives, cadre to villagers, managers to workers, and so on, the effects of which are felt down to today, despite setbacks in the post-Mao era.26
But Chang and Halliday ignore all such evidence. Though the books by Gao and Han were published in 1999 and 2000, respectively, they are absent from the supposedly comprehensive bibliography in Mao: The Unknown Story. Such personal accounts of those from peasant backgrounds who lived through the Mao era in the villages in China would contrast too starkly with the tale of unrelieved suffering that Chang and Halliday want to spin. Their entire treatment of the Cultural Revolution, in particular, is reduced to a “Great Purge” — capitalized throughout — with acts of personal revenge and political maneuvering on the part of Mao and, as always, his supposed pleasure at the violence inflicted on his enemies. The reduction of such a monumental revolutionary struggle to this kind of one-dimensional treatment, robs it of any of its historical or social meaning. But no one reading the book would have even the slightest hint of the complex reasons why Mao launched this last of his campaigns, or its relationship to the development of the global socialist movement, and its transformation of the Chinese revolution itself—from one centered on the often corrupt and abusive authorities to the mass of workers and peasants. That the Chinese working classes might therefore have experienced the Cultural Revolution in much more positive terms than those, like Chang, from privileged party, state and professional elites who were its primary targets, does not even receive passing mention in their account.
Yet it is on the basis of just such exclusion of evidence on the one hand, and warped interpretation of those materials that they do choose to include on the other, that the authors of Mao: The Unknown Story arrogantly claim to have broken new ground beyond all previous studies.
This biography, insists Chang, is unlike any other about the leader. “All the historical events like the Long March, the war with Japan, how Mao came to power, the Great Leap, the Cultural Revolution — our story is completely different. Nobody has explained Mao like us.”27
But most of the major claims and assertions of Chang and Halliday, as well as their range of manipulative methodologies, have already come under heavy criticism, and have been openly challenged or refuted, even by those who would otherwise be expected to be sympathetic to their interpretation of Mao. A few samples can serve to exemplify this:
1) Their claim that Mao “was responsible for well over 70 million deaths in peacetime, more than any other twentieth century leader” (3). Nicholas D. Kristof, noting the range of estimates put forward for the number of deaths in the Great Leap Forward — which accounts for the largest proportion of those who died during the Mao era — accuses the authors of “simply plucking a high-end estimate out of an article and embracing it as the one true estimate.” (cit. note 6: 11)
2) Their characterization of “the most enduring myth in modern Chinese history, and one of the biggest myths of the twentieth century—‘the Long March,’” including the claim regarding its most famous episode: “This is a complete invention. There was no battle at the Dadu Bridge,” based on an interview with a 93-year-old woman who lived in the area (129, 153). The Age of Australia sent its reporters there, who not only could not locate the supposed witness, but even anyone who knew who she was. They did find another survivor of that period, who confirmed that a battle had taken place, though one that may have been less dramatic than the later official version of it.
3) The overall methods used by Chang and Halliday. Andrew Nathan, who helped to mastermind the publication of the memoir of Li Zhisui and wrote a foreword to its English edition, and who begins his own review “Mao Zedong’s long, wicked life…,” nevertheless spends most of his lengthy piece showing how “It is clear that many of Chang and Halliday’s claims are based on distorted, misleading or far-fetched use of evidence… Chang and Halliday position themselves as near omniscient narrators, permitting themselves to say constantly what Mao and others really thought or really intended, when we seldom have any way of knowing.”28
4) Their refusal to consider contradictory interpretations. “Sydney University’s [Fred] Teiwes recalls meeting Chang and Halliday in Sydney during their research. ‘She just had her views so set, and was unwilling to entertain other opinions or inconvenient evidence,’ Teiwes said. ‘I remember we were talking about 1956 and whatever her actual view was, I tried to say, “Wait a minute, if you look at Mao’s meeting with Zhou Enlai at the end of April you can see something different.” She just didn’t want to hear about it.’”29
The emergence of a campaign to refute Mao: The Unknown Story has already begun, not only in a few more balanced and critical reviews of the book, but on leftist websites and email lists. In the last analysis, however, it must be recognized that the intellectuals and journalists on the left -– and even some of those more in the political mainstream – who reject all or part of the thesis of Chang and Halliday, are in a weak position acting by themselves in refuting its distortions. For they can never match the power of the print and electronic media of the right-wing corporate monopolies, the large-scale book publishers, and quasi-governmental global radio networks such as the BBC, which reach hundreds of millions on a daily basis. Against such opponents, the resources of the left will always be grossly inadequate.
But the battle is not and should not be confined to the field chosen by the reactionaries, who believe that they can win the day by promoting such attacks. For in the end, the struggle will not be determined only or even primarily by whether those who read such books accept or reject their conclusions. As Mao himself made clear, “The people, and the people alone, are the motive force in world history.”30 It only needs to be added that they, and especially the working classes, in their hundreds of millions, are also its ultimate arbiters. In the end, it is the Chinese people as a whole, and above all the workers and peasants — along with billions of their peers around the globe — who will render the lasting historical judgment as to whether Mao helped to make their lives better or worse. Those who have spent even a small amount of time talking with members of the working classes of China know that the view of him and of the socialist revolution that he led, while today by no means unquestioning or uncritical, still remains deeply appreciative and approving, and he continues to be seen by many as their representative. This is especially so, when they compare the “Maoist” era with that of the current rulers, who are viewed as corrupt and defending only the interests of the growing ranks of exploiters in the party and state and the rapidly emerging capitalist class, which is daily driving the workers and peasants to desperation, and to the edge of open revolt. As Wu Guoguang, a former government adviser and People’s Daily editorialist now teaching in Canada put it, “the masses are angry basically because of abuse of power by party officials. If the government were clean and efficient, things would be much calmer. But the perception is that the officials don’t want to pursue the state’s interests, so much as pursue their own interests — both legal and illegal” (New York Times, 8/24/05, A4).31
Those who want to repulse the attack by Chang and Halliday will not be able to do so successfully without tapping this enormous reservoir of feelings and memories among the working classes, who will never, with only the fewest exceptions, read Mao: The Unknown Story — especially as the educational system for them in China collapses. But they do not need to pore over books in order to make their own evaluations of Mao and the revolution that he led. They know from their own lives, at times feel literally in their very bodies, the benefits of the free health care and education, guaranteed jobs and social securities, and a participatory role in the running of their factories and farms, while he was the leader of the country — and that they have lost virtually any last shred of such rights today. Every means must be found, therefore, to assist the Chinese working classes to give voice to their own views on Mao and his legacy. It was, above all, the purpose of the struggle that he led, and especially the Cultural Revolution, to create the opportunity for them to be historical actors, to participate in society in their own name, finally free of the millennial rule of the “educated classes,” first of the Mandarins and then, even after the triumph of the Communists, of many party and state officials and the intellectual elite, who dominated the new society and treated the workers and peasants as ignorant masses. Those who wish to defend Mao will only be able to do so by following his own example, rededicating themselves to bringing to light the struggle of the Chinese working classes, and helping them in carrying it forward into the current era. They are once more on the move, struggling to redefine their role in the new “globalized” economy of a capitalistic China, a world Mao both foresaw and tried to prevent, to the very last days of his life.
Vicious, opportunistic and damaging as Mao: The Unknown Story is, therefore, it presents problems as well for those who oppose the late Chinese leader, as even many of the “Mao as Monster” ilk have been forced to recognize. Thus “some of the world’s most eminent scholars of modern Chinese history… say Chang’s latest blockbuster book… is a gross distortion of the records.” Among the early reviewers,
Few are disputing that their subject, the late Chinese communist party chairman Mao Zedong, was a monster as a human being and a leader who put first, his party comrades, and later, the whole country, through hell. Or that this is an extraordinarily powerful book, one that seems destined to be highly influential.
But many agree with Thomas Bernstein, of Columbia University in New York, that “the book is a major disaster for the contemporary China field.”
“Because of its stupendous research apparatus, its claims will be accepted widely,” he said this week. “Yet their scholarship is put at the service of thoroughly destroying Mao’s reputation.
“The result is an equally stupendous number of quotations out of context, distortion of facts and omission of much of what makes Mao a complex, contradictory, and multi-sided leader.”32Mao: The Unknown Story, therefore, represent both a threat and an opportunity. Despite the damage that it will do, the work of Chang and Halliday reconfirms, however unwittingly, the central role of Mao and of the socialist revolution that he led — at the very time that his ideas and policies are once again becoming even more relevant, and as the working classes are rising up in newfound forms of rebellion. Their book will no doubt lend new support to those who dismiss the late Chinese leader as a “monster.” But its very writing “demonstrates that we have not only drawn a clear line of demarcation between the enemy and ourselves but achieved a great deal in our work.” Their attack is carried to such a ridiculous extreme of hatred and distortion, that it helps to discredit the very approach that they have adopted and all who share such views, and begs for a more balanced and objective review of the role of Mao. Such a reevaluation reopens doors long closed, and in particular the warning that he issued of what would happen if the Chinese people turned away from socialism and once again took the path to capitalism.
Thus the crucial point here is not the rehabilitation or the dismissal of a single leader, however central he was to the past revolutionary struggle. The critical issue is whether the Chinese people, together with those of the entire world, will turn again toward the road to socialist revolution. A full and fair evaluation of the record of Mao can only aid in reopening that question and pointing to a positive answer. In this sense, being attacked by Chang and Halliday is “not a bad thing but a good thing.” But this will only be the case if those who support the socialist revolution in China and worldwide, embrace the new opportunity offered to them by this book, to raise again the goals that Mao spent his life struggling to achieve, and to advance once more along the path that he pursued.
Adds Steve Tsang of Oxford University, “the authors had been ‘appallingly dishonest’ in the use of sources they claimed to have accessed. ‘Mao was a monster,’ Tsang said. ‘(But) their distortion of history to make their case will in the end make it more difficult to reveal how horrible Mao and the Chinese Communist Party system were, and how much damage they really did to the Chinese people.” Or as Francesco Sisci of La Stampa in Italy put it, “You don’t feel cold analysis in this book, you feel hatred, which helps make it a wonderful read. But history should not work this way.” Adds Fred Teiwes of Sydney University, “When someone is responsible, and I believe he was, for upwards of 30 million deaths,33 it’s hard to defend him… But on the other hand to paint him as a totally monstrous personality who just goes out to kill people and protect his power at all cost is not only over the top but a bit crazy in terms of what actually went on” (Ibid.).
Thus as Mao himself predicted, attacks by the “enemy,” carried to their logical extreme, lead to serious errors and discredit their validity. A blind thrashing out may score short-term tactical gains, but it is strategically foolish in the end, and only deepens the internal contradictions of those who oppose revolutionary change. Attacks such as that in
*I would like to thank Alex Day, Mobo Gao, Matt Hale, Dirk Nimmegeers, Tom Lutze, Matt Rothwell, Dan Vukovich, Frank Willems and Yan Hairong for their comments on earlier drafts of this paper, and for helping to provide some of the materials and reviews referred to in it. As always, any remaining errors or misinterpretations are my own.
1. “Shaoshan Revisited,” in Poems (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1976), 36.
2. “To Be Attacked by the Enemy Is Not a Bad Thing but a Good Thing,” May 26, 1939, in Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung (Peking [Beijing]: Foreign Languages Press, 1968), 15.
3. Philip Hensher, www.seattlepi.com, 6/8/05.
4. Jonathan Mirsky, “Maintaining the Mao Myth,” International Herald Tribune, 7/6/05.
5. The Sunday Times – Books, London, 5/29/05.
6. New York Times Book Review, 10/23/05, 1, 10).
7. “Driving the book is an unrelenting hatred of Mao Zedong, and a determination to pile up evidence to blacken him as totally selfish and sadistic — particularly by Chang, who as a teenager was an enthusiastic Red Guard at the start of the Cultural Revolution but who turned when she saw her academic parents brutally persecuted (causing the death of her father).” Hamish McDonald, “Throwing the book at Mao,” www.theage.com.au, 10/6/05.
9. This description of the Chinese left is taken from my forthcoming article, “Conditions of the Working Classes in China,” where some of the issues and context raised here will be addressed in greater depth.
10. The events of the Cultural Revolution are too complex to be adequately dealt with here. It involved violent factionalism, gratuitous brutalities, and often arbitrary attacks, many of them fatal, including on those who were innocent of any of the accusations against them, as well as the closing of universities, etc. This aspect is now widely known, especially through the writings of those who were its main targets — the state, party and intellectual elites. Even many supporters of the goals of the Cultural Revolution criticize the high level of violence and deaths that accompanied it. But this is only one part of that revolutionary campaign, which also saw significant gains, especially for workers and peasants, who were the primary beneficiaries of the policies instituted during that decade of struggle. The gains included new opportunities for education and health care, and the democratization of many social relationships. Some of these are discussed in greater detail below.
11. Richard McGregor, “Hu at pains to keep China from peasants’ revolt,” The Financial Times, 9/7/05
13. This shift in sentiment has extended even to those in the top leadership of the party and state. “Since his rise to power in 2002, [President Hu Jintao] has also tried to establish his leftist credentials, extolling Marxism, praising Mao and bankrolling research to make the country’s official but often ignored socialist ideology more relevant to the current era” (New York Times, 3/12/06, 8). But this has not led to any significant turning back on Hu’s part from the continued expansion of capitalistic “market reforms,” and certainly not to support for the types of mass-based working class campaigns that marked the Mao era. These continue to be feared by the leadership, with its emphasis on social stability and the unrelenting promotion of economic growth at all costs. Any such ideological appeals by them to Mao, therefore, are highly selective and limited.
14. These accounts of a new movement toward the “left” in China are based on several meetings in which I participated there during the summer of 2004.
15. Among the more prominent progressive outlets in China today, with varying degrees of leftist involvement, are the Utopia bookstore, salon and website in Beijing, the journal Tianya or Frontiers, the websites maoflag.net and mzdthought.com, the theater group Lao Dong Haozi that works especially with migrants, a Marxist forum of leading cadre in state bodies and educational institutions that has met in the capital, and a liberal-left one in Zhengzhou that brings together a wide range of participants who share a common concern with the direction in which Chinese society is going, despite their own political differences. Some of these are of quite long standing. Others are more recent and face constant harassment or closure.
16. Lisa Allardice, interview with Chang, “‘This book will shake the world,’” The Guardian, 5/26/05, 4.
17. As Seumas Milne wrote recently: “Fifteen years after communism was officially pronounced dead, its spectre seems once again to be haunting Europe. In January, the Council of Europe’s parliamentary assembly voted to condemn the ‘crimes of totalitarian communist regimes’, linking them with Nazism and complaining that communist parties are still ‘legal and active in some countries’. Now Goran Lindblad, the conservative Swedish MP behind the resolution, wants to go further…. [Lindblad] explained that ‘different elements of communist ideology such as equality or social justice still seduce many’ and ‘a sort of nostalgia for communism is still alive’. Perhaps the real problem for Lindblad and his right-wing allies in Eastern Europe is that communism is not dead enough — and they will only be content when they have driven a stake through its heart and buried it at the crossroads at midnight” (Mail & Guardian Online, www.mg.co.za, 3/14/06).
18. See John Gulick, “Insurgent Chinese Workers and Peasants,” in Confronting Capitalism: Dispatches from a Global Movement, Eddie Yuen, Daniel Burton-Rose, and George Katsiaficas, eds. (Brooklyn, NY: Soft Skull Press, 2004).
19. Hamish McDonald, “Throwing the book at Mao,” www.theage.com.au, 10/6/05.
20. This is the first work in the English-language edition of the Selected Works of Mao Tse-Tung (Peking [Beijing]: People’s Publishing House, 1965), vol. 1, 39.
21. As Lenin had analyzed this, “in backward capitalist countries, like Russia, the majority of the population consists of semi-proletarians”; and the Communists would “continue to rely on the proletarian and semi-proletarian sections of the rural population, first organizing them into an independent force,” so that “Soviets of hired laborers and semi-proletarians… become consolidated enough to influence (and later to incorporate) the small peasants.” He further attacked “representatives of the bourgeoisie and… the petty bourgeois ‘socialists’” for “lumping together this group with the mass of the ‘peasantry’” (“Preliminary Draft Thesis on the Agrarian Question, for the Second Congress of the Communist International,” Collected Works, Vol. 33, 153-54, 164; “A Great Beginning,” Vol. 29, 422; “Draft Programme of the R.C.P.(B.),” Vol. 29, 140).
22. Mao, “Analysis of Classes,” Selected Works, vol. 1, 15.
23. Mao, “Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan” (1927), Selected Works, vol. 1, 41-42.
24. Mobo C.F. Gao, Gao Village: A Portrait of Rural Life in Modern China (London: Hurst & Co., 1999), 72.
25. Ibid., 86-87. These campaigns were never free from unevenness and in some cases had quite dire unintended negative consequences — the chemicals used to eliminate the snails that cause schistosomiasis resulted in “disastrous” water pollution, reducing a main source of food. Gao, who criticizes economic policies that generally favored the urban areas over the countryside, constantly points to such “mixed” results in the Mao era. But for Chang and Halliday, only the “cons” are open to discussion, never the “pros.”
26. Dongping Han, The Unknown Cultural Revolution: Educational Reforms and Their Impact on China’s Rural Development (New York and London: Garland Publishing, 2000).
27. Allardice interview (note 16), 3.
28. Andrew Nathan, “Jade and Plastic,” London Review of Books (LRB), Vol. 27 No. 22, 11/17/05.
29. Hamish McDonald, “Throwing the book at Mao,” www.theage.com.au, 10/6/05.
30. “On Coalition Government” (1945), Selected Works, vol. 3, 257.
31. In an attempt both to cleanse its own ranks and to recoup from its “organizational disarray and a sinking public image,” the party has itself turned back to the Mao era and “chosen one of its oldest political tools — a Maoist-style ideological campaign, complete with required study groups. For 14 months and counting, the party’s 70 million rank-and-file members have been ordered to read the speeches of Mao and Deng Xiaoping,” as well as the Chinese Constitution. “Mandatory meetings include sessions where cadres must offer self-criticism and also criticize everyone else.” But it is hard to overcome the deep contradiction between the ideology of the party and its recent practice, and though some have used the campaign to make serious efforts at instituting improvements, others have responded with considerable cynicism, including downloading from the internet, and even selling “crib sheets” and “homework essays” for cadre (New York Times, 3/9/06, A1).
32. Hamish McDonald, “Throwing the book at Mao,” www.theage.com.au, 10/6/05.
33. It is important to note that even such lower figures are open to serious challenge from other scholars such as, inter alia, Utsa Patnaik, Professor of Economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University New Delhi, who both disputes the overall number of deaths commonly attributed outside China to the Great Leap Forward and shows that in 1960 the “peak ‘famine’ death rate in China was… little different from India’s actual, ‘normal’ death rate, 24.6, in the same year.” Since this period is held up as the centerpiece of much of the criticism of Mao, it is necessary to try to arrive at an accurate evaluation of what occurred then, and to understand how such issues are used selectively to attack the socialist revolution in China, while ignoring the millions who die annually from the chronic effects of hunger elsewhere. Utsa Patnaik, “The Republic of Hunger: Public Lecture on the occasion of the 50th Birthday of Safdar Hashmi,” New Delhi, April 10, 2004.